Bowing to the violin virtuoso

Music maven

Bowing to the violin virtuoso

Widely regarded as the God of Indian violin, Dr Subramaniam’s sound and roots may be Indian, but the soul of his music and its appeal is essentially universal. In a career spanning decades, he is the only musician who seems to have done it all.

From recording and performing Carnatic classical music and Western classical music in both orchestral and non-orchestral forms, which includes composing for and conducting major orchestras around the world; he has collaborated with the greatest of musicians from the widest genres of music; he has scored for a number of films; he is the founder of the Lakshminarayana Global Music Festival.

With a large and momentous body of work, he has established himself as a major force in global music, and an institution by himself.

Born to eminent musicians Professor V Lakshminarayana and Seethalakshmi, the young Subramaniam started studying music under the tutelage of his father even before he was five years old. Although the initial training was for vocals, an incident of septicaemia affected his voice, and he soon started learning the violin, which he always felt drawn to.

Within a year he had prodigiously mastered the basics, and his first major performance was at age six, at an auspicious temple festival.

Reminiscing on that performance, Dr Subramaniam says, “My father wanted me to play at a festival alongside him, but the organisers politely refused. In the middle of the performance he announced that I was going to play a small composition. The organisers were shocked, but the performance got a thunderous applause. Immediately, the organisers came on stage and said that it was Lord Muruga himself who had played through me and took the entire credit!”

The family that had moved to Sri Lanka was forced to come back in the late fifties as the island nation broke out in anarchy. The Lakshminarayana family escaped to Chennai in the nick of time, failing which the world would have lost several geniuses who redefined the contours of global music.

Subramaniam went on to finish school in Chennai and enrolled for a degree in medicine. Midway through the degree, he was offered a scholarship in Germany to study music. His father agreed to him discontinuing medicine, but his mother insisted that he finish.

Although he was depressed at that time, he says, “That was when I decided that I would finish medicine and take up violin.”

Talking  about the evolution of his music, Dr Subramaniam says, “I feel I am zero without music. It has given me everything. Yes, I know one can become famous and successful financially, but for me, those were all secondary. When you start playing, the sound takes over, a state of mind hard to describe. It ensures inner peac and calmness of mind, and you feel self-content. I don’t want anything else, I am happy if I can just play the violin.”

Sharing some of his best works, Dr Subramaiam says: “When I was playing at a concert abroad, Stéphane Grappelli came over and said we should do something together. He was a senior artiste who my father listened to. My dream to take the Indian violin to a global audience was coming true. So, I went to Los Angeles to record with Grappelli. Despite some hitches and the last-minute rush, I wrote a nameless piece, and we recorded it. Conversations became one of the most acclaimed compositions in fusion style.”

In the orchestral style, his work with Zubin Mehta, called Fantasy on Vedic Chants, for the New York Philharmonic, is something he rates highly. Reminiscing on that performance, he says, “That went on to be a roaring success, and many newspapers said that was the best they had heard.” Subsequently, a symphony orchestra from Moscow asked him to write a piece and tour with them. This resulted in Shanti Priya.

A couple of ballet companies from Russia liked it so much that they created a ballet performance for it with a live orchestra and toured extensively. Another satisfying piece was Journey, performed with Yehudi Menuhin at the UN. “At the end of that performance, we received a standing ovation from all the ambassadors.” He adds that it was one of the occasions when they all agreed on something.

Dr Subramaiam has collaborated with a large number of musicians who are legends in their respective realms. The one he is working on at the moment is probably his best collaboration.

He says, “The new album will be the finale of collaborations, because I won’t be able to repeat it as some of the artistes have passed away. I’ve never had so many legends in one album. Called Beyond Borders, it features Stéphane Grappelli, George Duke, Stanley Clarke, Billy Cobham, Herbie Hancock, Larry Coryell, Hubert Laws, Ernie Watts and Kavita Krishnamurthy. It has over 10 jazz legends. I have written for everybody separately, thinking about their style and strengths.

Everybody has done amazing solos.” The other recent collaborative work that he has enjoyed is an album done with his wife Kavita. “I wanted to do an album with her for a very long time. I have really put in my heart and mind to do it well,” he says. The album features legendary lyricists such as Javed Akhtar and Gulzar among others. The vocals on the album include Pandit Jasraj and a host of the best Bollywood vocalists.

Recalling some memorable performances, Subramaniam says, “Last year, we played at the Vancouver Stanley Park. They said there would be few people because it was cold and dark, but there were close to 30,000 people. I made to the front page of the Vancouver Times. The other one was at the WOMAD Festival.

When I started playing, it started drizzling. I went on playing aalaps for 45 minutes. I saw people still there, sitting in the dark, getting wet. That is when I realised that people  appreciate aalaps. Recently, when we played in Thane for a festival, outside the venue were up to two lakh people who listened to us on giant screens. At my own father’s festival once, we had over two lakh people listening.”

The festival that Dr Subramaniam  started has gone on to become a global institution. Talking about its genesis, he says, “When my father passed away, I stopped playing for a while because I was depressed. My wife told me that my father’s dream was to make the Indian violin globally known, and if I stopped playing, I would do the opposite of what he wanted.

She suggested that I start a festival in his memory. So, we decided to start one in Chennai, which later spread to six cities. Since then we have had all great artistes performing. Now, it has become an international festival. After 22 years and 20 festivals, we are releasing a coffee table book to mark the occasion.”

He currently runs a school called the Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts with his sons and daughter, and his passion now is to spread music appreciation among children. He has published a book called SaPa Baby, for children of all ages to understand classical music, in a joint effort with Bindu Subramaiam.

He also hopes to set up a global institute to bring in young artistes from around the world, giving them scholarships and a platform to grow. He wants to write books on South Indian music to keep the tradition alive. He continues his quest to find new paradigms within global and traditional music.

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